Manuscript culture and preservation in West Africa has been punctuated by moments of destruction. In 1591, Moroccan armies invaded the Songhai Empire, leaving the library of the famous Timbuktu scholar and jurist Ahmad Baba in ruins. Three hundred years later, French colonial authorities seized the library of al-Ḥājj ʻUmar Tal after their conquest of Ségou, renamed it Les Fonds Archinards and, in 1892, moved it permanently to the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. But in many instances, the creation of new archives can also be destructive. In the 1960s, as West African countries gained their independence, nationalist leaders in Nigeria, Niger, and elsewhere co-opted private archive collections into the service of the state. Meanwhile, advances in digitisation and, also, a flood of international development money, threatens to turn the preservation of African archives into a “numbers game” in which hundreds of family libraries are subsumed into a few vast collections. The most ambitious digitisation project is, again, in Timbuktu, where SAVAMA-DCI, a local NGO, evacuated twenty-eight family libraries to the Malian capital Bamako, following the Islamist occupation of northern Mali in 2013. Our talk will assess how the study of primary sources is closely intertwined with the histories of the archives within which they are found, and discuss how the growing transnationalization of West Africa’s archives will affect access and study.
Ali Diakite completed his PhD at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France, on West African intellectual life in the 19th century. A native speaker of Arabic, Fulfulde, and Bambara, Diakite completed his MA work in Arabic Studies at the Université de Bamako, Mali. He has contributed to the West African Arabic Manuscripts Microfilm Project (MMAP) and is currently working as Cataloger of West African Manuscripts at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.
Paul Naylor holds a PhD in African Studies from the University of Birmingham (UK). His book, From Rebels to Rulers, studies Arabic manuscript tradition in the Sokoto Caliphate and required extensive engagement with archives in Niger, Nigeria, the UK, France and the USA. Having catalogued the British Library’s collection of Arabic script manuscripts from Africa, he now works at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library as a Cataloguer of West African Manuscripts.